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History & Heritage


Tunisian man brings back to life an ancient Phoenician craft

In his garden, Mohamed Ghassen Nouira, a Tunisian with a passion for history, revives an art that was once the wealth of the classical world: making purple dye from sea snail shells.

Years ago, while strolling along the beach at Carthage, in the northern suburbs of Tunis, Nouira came across a murex shell. This discovery reminded him of his history classes and inspired him to recreate this ancient dye. And so the adventure began.

The historical significance of Tyrian purple

The dye, known as Tyrian purple, was once highly prized in antiquity and reserved for the elite. The Phoenicians, originally from present-day Lebanon, established a flourishing trade in Tyrian purple, which played an important role in building their mercantile empire. As a result, they founded colonies throughout the Mediterranean, including Carthage, which developed into an independent empire and dominated the western Mediterranean for centuries.



Today, Carthage is a suburb of Tunis, where the ruins of the ancient Punic civilization are still visible along the city’s hillsides, and the ancient Punic port retains its thousand-year-old shape. Its beaches are adorned with Murex shells, relics of a time when Carthage and its trade routes shaped the Mediterranean world. Over the centuries, the secret of extracting Tyrian purple from murex shells fell into oblivion, until Nouira embarked on a mission to resurrect the ancient craft.

A path strewn with skepticism

Nouira devoted 14 years to elucidating the production process of Tyrian purple. Initially met with skepticism and criticism for his unusual hobby, Nouira remained determined. As tangible results began to emerge, his detractors gradually turned into admirers, offering encouragement that fuelled his motivation. “Criticism turned into encouragement, which kept me going,” he says.


Mohamed Ghassen Nouira extracting glands from a murex snail to produce Tyrian purple. Tunis, Tunisia. Source: REUTERS/Amira Karaoud


He procures murex fillets from a local fisherman, extracts the glands, grinds the shells and subjects them to fermentation and cooking. After scrupulous steps, he manages to produce small quantities of purple powder. The scale of the process is colossal, requiring 54 kilograms (119 pounds) of murex shells to obtain a single gram of Tyrian purple. The quantity required makes dye production economically viable. However, the purple powder he meticulously produces now fetches a high price of around $2,500 per gram. Its appeal lies not only in its rarity, but also in its authenticity, linking the present with a bygone era of opulence and grandeur.


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Published on 31 May 2023